by Nicholas Stuart, November 16, 2015
And now Paris. Acres of newsprint sacrificed in memorial to the terrible violence. Truly horrific, it deserves to be condemned in the loudest tones. But unexpected? Incomprehensible? I think not.
Did President Francois Hollande really think there could be no blowback when, earlier this year, he authorised French jets to fly off the Charles de Gaulle and bomb Mosul, Fallujah, Kirkuk, Raqqa and Zumar? The weekend’s brief spattering of terror in Paris is as nothing compared to the daily death toll of the Middle East. Yet we are surprised when there is blowback; when the suicide bomber, using the weapon of the powerless, those who have no aircraft carriers or missiles, detonates his bomb in our own cities. Surprised, really? Why?
Last month Hollande “authorised” attacks on Syria, just as he’d earlier approved a 12-week bombing operation against “targets” in Iraq. Perhaps he thought the Islamic insurgents would realise he’d designated that the killing should only take place there, rather than in his own homeland. Now he seems amazed when a small fraction of the horror he’s precipitated on the streets of the Levant returns to his own capital.
Like all of us, Hollande only wants to do good. That was why he intervened in the region, to eliminate extremists. Unfortunately he didn’t realise war is an improvisation with two actors, instead a dramatic monologue. Hollande controls one part, but he cannot write the entire script and it’s a pity he, and Germany’s Angela Merkel didn’t think through the full ramifications of their policies first. Of course, if you bomb “terrorists” they will bomb you back and of course, if you welcome refugees fleeing horrific conflict hundreds of thousands more will seek refuge.
Our civic attention span is being increasingly reduced to the bland incoherence of a tweet. We cycle through #prayforparis and #PorteOuverte (open door) without, apparently, comprehending that the knee bone is connected to the thigh-bone. Of course this was never going to be a one-way trade of death and destruction. Any attempt to quarantine the chaos, destruction and killings to a single geographic area, or “authorised military force” will inevitably be condemned to utter failure. The world is a very bad place and closing our eyes to the inevitable reaction to each action is wilful stupidity of the worst sort.
The desired vocabulary of terror is fear. The weekend killing spree in Paris, however, was something different. It wasn’t designed to communicate. The murders were born of rage and hatred. Perhaps most crucially, the shootings wasn’t designed to achieve any objective – they were nothing more than an expression of inchoate fury. It’s vital to comprehend this, because unless this insight drives our response we, the West, will continue misunderstanding the problem and fumbling in the dark.
The deranged perpetrators of Friday night’s attacks thought their actions rational. Although their logic may be repugnant, and horrific, unless we recognise its meaning we cannot make sense of what it means for us. While he stalked through the stalls, shooting people who’d just come to see a rock concert, one of the terrorists proclaimed, “This is the fault of your president; he didn’t have to intervene in Syria”.
As Malcolm Turnbull insisted from Turkey, there must be a workable peace in the region. Until this is fixed it will continue exporting violence, refugees and tragedy. This affects Europe and the Europeans will need to act to resolve it. Yet the continent persists in standing by, wringing hands and sending bombers to “degrade and disrupt”. It’s pointless. But this doesn’t fit our narrative of wounded innocence.
The trouble is we can’t just mourn the victims in Paris and somehow ignore the casualties in Beirut just days earlier or the continuing horror that is Iraq. Imagine the power those killers suddenly felt, as they stalked the dance floor of the concert hall. Aim; shoot; reload. Aim; shoot; reload. Slaughtering those who lay helpless; whose only crime was not to be like them. They had achieved a geographic metamorphosis, bringing the Middle East to the centre of Europe. What we saw on the streets of Paris was simply an expression of raw emotion. The killers were just bright enough to harness modern technology (that they could never invent) to murder randomly. Who knows what particular insults or emotions pushed them over the edge to prompt the specific orgy of destruction and nihilism we saw expressed in blood over the weekend.
What drove their actions were ideas, quite literally, beyond the bounds of our normal, logical conception. It’s a mistake to attempt to compress these emotions and passions into our usual language. Using words like “war” to describe the challenge IS represents is as futile as thinking that air-warfare destroyers will be able to combat the threat. It’s no longer sufficient to rely on conventional strategies to eliminate this new threat to our security. Instead a new, different response is required.
This requires a new language: convention corrupts our thoughts and prevents us thinking through policy. Even now I write, for example, “Daesh”, but through editorial diktat the name is changed to “Islamic State” by the time it appears in print. But these terrorists are neither “Islamic” (a specific religion) nor a “state” bounded by borders. This newspaper’s preferred formulation compresses an ideology of raw hatred, vitriol and anger into words that suggest it is based on foundations that we can comprehend. The reality is otherwise.
This is why their language is random killing with a vocabulary limited to one word: murder. Pure, amorphous, brutal violence represents the extent of expression. There is no room for reasoning or discussion. The perpetrators of this assault had no greater objective other than to destroy. Their terror requires an answer.
What happens in Paris happens here.